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Tez Walker's dream of the NFL was a long time coming, but worth the wait

Tez Walker ISO

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.– Devontez Walker was despondent on the sidelines at Bank of America Stadium. His team, the North Carolina Tar Heels, were in route to a border battle win over the South Carolina Gamecocks in a 2023 kickoff game, but Walker—the prized recruit out of the transfer portal that offseason and the Charlotte hometown kid—was forced to watch from the bench.

The NCAA had denied his eligibility waiver earlier in the week, the first of what would be five denials in a tumultuous and very public fight between UNC and the college game's governing body over the coming weeks.

As Walker rode every wave of emotion on the sideline during the game, his teammates tried their best to keep him focused and upbeat. After the win, coach Mack Brown even awarded Walker the game ball. But privately Walker wondered if it was best to just walk away, declare early for the NFL draft and take his chances with little college tape.

"I knew how good I was so I knew I'd get a chance somewhere. But I will say with the NCAA stuff, not being high coming in, not being able to play, I'd think teams would've backed off." Walker admitted in January at the Reese's Senior Bowl. "Because I was thinking about still declaring. Probably would've ended up undrafted."

Every looming decision and subsequent consequence lined Walker's dejected face that night in Charlotte. To anyone on the outside looking in, it would appear to be the worst situation a player could be placed in, teased with a dream only to have it snatched away. But Walker had been through worse and persevered. Josh Harris knew that better than anyone.

Harris was Walker's high school coach at West Charlotte, and became a mentor. The two talk every day. As Walker was thrown into a battle not of his choosing with the NCAA, Harris would remind him of what he imparted to Walker years before, when he was going through an even tougher battle.

"It's ok to be sad or frustrated," Harris shared. "But tomorrow, tomorrow is a new day and tomorrow can always be brighter."

Tez Walker Senior Bowl

Walker was in 10th grade the first time someone breathed life to his dreams. At practice for the West Charlotte Lions football team, Walker—affectionally known as Tez—caught what was intended to be a simple slant. As soon as the ball was in his hands, Walker turned on the speed by which he'd become known and cruised to the end zone.

Lions assistant coach and former Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Sean Gilbert turned to Harris and told him without hesitation, "Coach, that's an NFL player."

Gilbert was so certain of what Walker could become, that Harris pulled Walker aside and asked him, what do you want to do with your future?

"He was like 'Coach, I'm going to the NFL,'" Harris recalled this week.

Walker was somewhat undersized at the time, but with years ahead of him to grow for college ball, and eventually, the league. He was a basketball player in high school as well, a shooting guard that had potential on the college level. It wasn't what he wanted to do though.

"(Football) was my first love. Ever since I saw it on TV at four years old, you see people running from other people, as a kid you're like of course I want to do that," Walker shared at the Senior Bowl. "Ever since then, that's all I've wanted to do, go play in the NFL. That's always been my dream, that's my why to playing football. Get to the NFL."

Harris saw the conviction, and most importantly, work ethic, to make it happen.

"I just told him, I said, 'If this is your plan, no one should be able to question whether you're trying to go to the NFL or not with your work ethic,'" Harris shared. "And I never questioned that the NFL was going to be his future."

For the next two years, Walker worked, taking every morsel of coaching Harris and his staff would give. He was rated as a three-star recruit by 247 Sports, and had several offers, committing to play at East Tennessee State. But the spring before Walker was set to graduate and enroll in college, he tore his ACL.

Everything came to a halt, and not for the last time. Walker was forced to wait a year to enter college, instead staying in Charlotte to rehab.

Each morning, Walker woke up at 5 a.m. and took an hour-long bus ride to the other side of town, where he was expected to be for work by 7 a.m., at the Randolph Road Bojangles. It would have been so easy to give it up and not worry about the excruciating rehab that lay in front of him for a dream that might not even come true.

Instead, Walker used the hour to imagine life on the other side.

"A lot of time, I'd use the bus rides to process my thoughts, my next move," Walker recalled Thursday, after performing for scouts and coaches from the majority of NFL teams. Sometimes he would watch college or NFL games from the night before or prepare his schedule for rehab. Most of the time though, he let that hour be a safe place for his mind to wander, thinking on "where I'm going to get to, where I'm at, where I'm going to be in a few years."

After work, Walker would stay in East Charlotte to rehab with a trainer, then continue on his own to work out in Midtown, before heading home to West Charlotte. He wouldn't get home until after 9 p.m. (often working out once he got home), then he'd do it all again the next day.

Harris worked to keep Walker motivated but grounded during the time, often telling him, "Obviously, football is something he's good at, but it's not necessarily who, it's not who he is." But while the sport might not define Walker, it does drive him.

Tez Walker

After the ACL recovery altered Walker's plans, he began his college journey in 2020 at North Carolina Central. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged for months on end though, Central was forced to cancel their season that fall and again in the spring of 2021, when a make-up season was tentatively planned. Seeing the writing on the wall, Walker transferred to Kent State.

His first season with the Golden Eagles was slow, but by his second year, Walker broke out. That year Walker brought in 58 receptions, 921 receptions and 11 touchdowns. His success on the field though was tempered by life off the field. Walker had long been the caretaker for his grandmother. She was back home in the Toddville Road neighborhood of Charlotte and Walker was almost eight hours away in Ohio.

He entered the transfer portal and chose North Carolina. That would put him in Chapel Hill, just a little over two hours away and with the chance to even play back in Charlotte at times. After his decision to transfer, the NCAA handed down new rules. The minutiae is extremely legalistic, but Andrea Adelson, who covers the ACC for ESPN, did a great job of breaking it down in a story that can be read here. Essentially, the NCAA said they would no longer be giving eligibility waivers to someone who transferred twice. The fact Walker's first transfer was due to factors out of his control were not initially considered.

The NCAA denied Walker's waiver five times.

After Mack Brown and UNC, in conjunction with Raleigh-based attorneys, threated to sue to governing body, Walker's case was taken up once again.

He was approved on a Thursday, October 5, 2023. Walker was on the field that Saturday for a 40-7 win over Syracuse. To that point, Walker had worked on scout team in practice, just as a way of staying plugged in with the team.

"He wasn't really even in the game plan. So, we just threw him in there," Tar Heels offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey told reporters on Thursday at North Carolina's Pro Day. "Then he comes out and catches right on."

That first week, Walker had a modest six catches for 43 yards.

The next week, after a full slate of practices with the first team offense, Walker helped North Carolina light up Miami, to the tune of six catches again, but this time for 132 yards and three touchdowns.

The performance was a coming out party for Walker on the draft stage, and a clear indicator to teams of what he could bring them in the league.


Walker stood by himself in a room packed with people back in January. It was Wednesday of Senior Bowl week and the top prospects in the draft were crowded in a stuffy ballroom at the Mobile Convention Center as media from across the country picked at every detail of their game and draftability.

The receiver, who Harris describes as an introvert, stood alone, content to bide his time until the process was done for the night. When approached however, Walker was not shy in stating his case for the NFL.

"I do a great job down the field getting separation," he said. "That ain't an underrated trait of mine but when it happens consistently, I feel like it's hard to go unnoticed."

It does not, in fact, go unnoticed.

Lindsey echoed his receiver at Pro Day, stating, "I think the first thing that sticks out is he can run by anybody. He can fly, just to say it like it is."

And as Clemson defensive back Nate Wiggins spoke with reporters in Indianapolis this spring, at the annual NFL Combine, he brought up Walker, unprompted.

"I didn't guard no body with (Walker's) speed all year so when I guarded him, he could match my speed, so I had to change my game up," Wiggins said.

It's a trait that can stand out on tape, but the full effect isn't truly grasped until someone is next to Walker on the field.

"I feel like people, they underestimate my speed until they actually run right beside me," he declared.

Walker ran a 4.36 second 40-yard dash at the Combine, tied for fifth-fastest overall at the entire event. But with each event, from the Senior Bowl, to the Combine, to Pro Day, Walker's confidence in his full game grew. He is more than his speed, and he's progressively used each event more and more to show coaches and scouts just that.

"I wanted to focus on speed, but I also wanted to focus a lot that I can run the route tree," Walker shared Thursday at Pro Day. "So, get out of those brake smoothly, those speed cuts, those intermediate, short to intermediate routes and things like that. Show that I wasn't a one trick pony, (but can) run the deep ball and post and things like that."

Tez Walker Pro Day

There's less than a month now until the NFL draft.

Walker is widely considered a second-day pick, something he believes was slightly effected by playing only eight games last season; "I feel like it would boost a little bit, maybe an early second, maybe a late first. But I'm just blessed to be in the conversation."

The Panthers, Walker's hometown team and a club in need of receivers, hold two picks early in the second round at 33 and 39 overall respectively. It's a possibility Walker and Harris don't want to pin all their hopes on, but the temptation to dream is there.

"It'd be like being a hometown hero," Walker sheepishly admitted. "Everybody back home supports me, so it'd be real great. And I was a real big Cam Newton fan, so that'd mean a lot, playing for the Panthers, playing for that organization. Young and upcoming organization, so it'd be fun."

Added Harris, "We talk every day, and a lot of our conversation is not about football, but football does come up and we definitely talked about how dope it would be if he was to come back home and play for the Carolina Panthers.

"What that would do for the West Charlotte community, all the football players at West Charlotte now, past and present, and for his family—his grandmother… it would just mean a lot to the city."

The last time Walker stood on the sidelines in Bank of America Stadium, it was with an unsure future and little hope. The next time could be with a world of possibilities in front of him and the speed to catch all his dreams.

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